Our kids are “At-Promise” for a better future. I know, because I am one of them
Introduction by John Ahmann, President & CEO of Westside Future Fund
This week’s guest columnist is Lakeisha Walker, assistant director of youth programs for the Atlanta Police Foundation. I was honored to hear Lakeisha’s personal testimonial as part of her speaking on a panel led by the Atlanta Police Foundation team at the July 19th Transform Westside Summit. Raised in English Avenue, Lakeisha – through her own courageous vulnerability in sharing her story – speaks to the power of the At-Promise Center to change youth lives on the Westside. During the Summit, the Atlanta Police Foundation reported that since the At-Promise Youth Center opened in 2017, recidivism rates are 4% compared to the national rate of 70%. This is amazing!
You can catch a replay of Lakeisha’s remarks at the Summit and hear from several of the organizations that are working in support of opportunity youth in collaboration with the Atlanta Police Foundation via our Facebook Livestream. Lakeisha’s remarks begin at the 1 hour 21-minute mark and are well worth the 8-minute listen. The Westside Future Fund has a vision of helping build a community Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would be proud to call home. This community is Lakeisha’s home, and I think Dr. King would be proud to call her his neighbor.
Be sure to register and join us for the upcoming Transform Westside Summit on September 6th.
By Lakeisha Walker
Atlanta Police Foundation
As the Atlanta Police Foundation’s At-Promise Youth Center approaches its second anniversary, as a centerpiece program among neighborhood revitalization efforts under the Westside Future Fund banner, I thought it an appropriate time to share my own story.
I’m a product of the historic English Avenue/Vine City neighborhood. I grew up on Simpson Road, which is now Joseph E. Boone Road. As a preschooler, I went to the local Head Start program, formerly housed in what became the At-Promise Youth Center on Cameron Alexander Boulevard.
I attended Booker T. Washington High School, graduating in 1998.
Today, after many years – some of struggle and personal trial, but all marked by perseverance and faith that I could make a better life for myself and my family — I’ve come full circle.
As a child, my family and I would have to lie on the floor, beneath the windows to dodge bullets that seemed to fill my neighborhood street daily. My bedroom window was directly across from a popular night club. Each weekend I prepared myself mentally because I knew sleep would be limited, due to violence ignited by drugs and alcohol.
It was a tough neighborhood, often lacking in resources and the emotional support that every child deserves. There was no investment in my neighborhood. No retail, businesses or prospects for a decent future. Crime was not something that happened to others. Every family I knew was touched by it. Crime was part of everyday life, a normal part of every day for my friends and me.
My experience taught me that for a young person, a stable home life and the support of one’s neighbor and community have a profound impact on one’s confidence, opportunities and ultimately personal success.
I was lucky. I had the support of my grandmother, mom, uncles and the staff at John F. Kennedy Recreation Center. I was determined to overcome the challenges I faced and ensured that I knew life was what one made of it.
Though I made many mistakes, I persevered.
I was determined to graduate from college – despite having two children before I was 21. I started and stopped attending college twice before I steadied my focus and determination to complete my degree.
During this journey, I was married, had a third child and worked a fulltime job while being a fulltime student and mother. I studied hard and received a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Bauder College, graduating magna cum laude.
I believe in paying it forward. Dedication to serving others – whether friends, family, neighbors or the community – is a driving force in my life. I find it fulfilling — personally, professionally and spiritually.
I’m committed to ensuring that the people I touch have an easier path in life than I did. That my work is focused on my hometown and in my own childhood neighborhood, confers on it a profound and personal meaning.
I work today as the Assistant Director of Youth Programs for the Atlanta Police Foundation’s At-Promise Youth Initiative. Each day, I report to the At-Promise Center to work with more than 40 different social service agency partners, who provide support to the more than 400 youth who are served by our program.
These are often troubled youth, young people, some of whom have been diverted to us by law enforcement and the courts. Others are on the verge of falling into serious problems at their schools. Some have complicated and difficult home lives.
Working with these youth pays dividends each day. We are not uniformly successful in every engagement for every person we encounter. However, the At-Promise model has been extremely successful and makes a difference in the lives of those we serve. We show them we care about them as people, regardless of the cause or extent of their issues. We expose them to pathways to a better life and demonstrate that there are, indeed, others they can rely on. For some, it has been years since they could reliably count on another person.
A principal goal of the At-Promise Center is to reduce youth crime. We’ve been able to reduce recidivism of this troubled population, who enroll in our programs dramatically, from a national recidivism average of over 70%, compared to 4% for At-Promise youth.
But more importantly, our work gives our youth a sense of purpose, opportunity and the support they need to confidently face the challenges that life has for them.
The daily challenge can sometimes be discouraging. The motivation to continue the effort, however, is unmatched. How incredible it is that I found it in my own backyard.